Julian has a school project, to interview a family member for their biographical story. On a facetime chat, he talks his grandmother into sharing her childhood growing up in wartime France. Hesitantly, she agrees to, and not only to do that but to share parts of her story she hasn’t told before. For Julian and his grandmother are Jewish, and Sara (his grandmother) is nervous about how her history seems to be repeating.
We meet her as a child along with her impressive parents: her father was an accomplished surgeon and her mother one of the first women in their village to graduate with a degree in mathematics. Her early life felt like a fairy tale, growing up in Aubervilliers-aux-bois, France in the 1930s. They lived on the edge of the forestside, which would almost magically bloom into fields of bluebells each year. Sara loved to draw, especially birds, inspired by a flying game she and her father shared when she was little.
When the Nazis invade France, the fairy tale starts to falter. Although her village is in the “Free Zone”, her classroom bully makes it clear that many share the Nazi mentality. Stakes fly higher suddenly one day when the Gestapo show up at the school, seeking the school’s Jewish students. The school arranges to help those students flee, but Sara runs to hide in the attic of the school. It is this that saves her life.
The second half of the graphic novel echoes the Anne Frank story, with a classmate of Sara’s shepherding her to a barn by his family’s property to hide her until her parents can be located. She and this classmate, who is Julian’s namesake, develop a close friendship. Sara experiences the day-to-day boredom and frustrations of being in hiding, along with the fear when they have close scrapes with the suspicious neighbors and that ever-present bully who is fixated on Julian’s secrets. There is tragedy, as is unavoidable in this era’s stories. But grandchild Julian is profoundly moved by his grandmother’s story, and aims to bring what he learned into today’s climate.
I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I’ve been pretty frustrated that author Palacio doesn’t seem to feel the need to stray from the bank of her Wonder franchise. I suppose she has no reason to, but in this instance, there is NO reason that this graphic novel needs to be a Wonder tie-in beyond money. Frankly, though, I feel like she can sell on her name alone, so what gives here? Julian could have been any young Jewish boy learning about his heritage. He doesn’t need more redemption, I don’t think, from his days as the bully in Wonder. MOVE ON, PALACIO.
That being said, this is a beautifully written novel. I love that the setting is in the French countryside, and that it sheds light and knowledge on lesser-known parts of the Resistance. The illustrations are generally beautiful, though I do find Palacio’s characters’ expressions to be overly-subtle to the point of boring. Her landscapes are lovely and my critique is fairly picky. This would be enjoyed by all ages. It’s appropriate for children, but has lots of appeal for older readers.
I also really hated the omniscient bird motif, but the relationships and dialogue and setting are top notch and make this worth reading (whether or not you read or enjoyed Wonder).
Edit: I’ve recently become less thrilled with this book after some feedback from Jewish readers who have a more critical eye, as well as thinking more on Palacio writing for populations she does not represent (both as a non-Jewish and able-bodies person). Maybe pass on it.